Even after he found mainstream success way beyond what he ever dreamt of, the TV painter and positive guru was an extremely private person, which makes all more curious to hear more about him and his background.
It’s been nearly 25 years since the painter and television/internet personality passed away from cancer in 1995 at the age of 52, but he is probably more popular today than at what was considered his heyday – until the Internet rediscovered him.
As successful and well-known as the late Bob Ross was in his lifetime, the host of PBS “The Joy of Painting” from 1983 to 1994 probably never imagined the cult following he was going to inspire in a much younger generation posthumously.
Ross was more than happy to be a teacher and art guru for millions on national television, but in his private life, he was much more reserved, especially about his pre-fame days in the US Army. Here is a little about Ross’ life before stardom.
Robert Norman Ross was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, on October 29, 1942, the son of a carpenter named Jack and his wife Ollie.
Ross spent his entire childhood in the sunshine state, where he attended high school until the ninth grade, when he chose to drop out of school and start working as a carpenter with his father.
The painter was going to regret his decision later, ending up without a high school diploma and a missing index fingertip on his left hand due to an accident in the workshop that convinced him that this wasn’t what he was destined to do.
As soon as Ross turned 18, he enrolled in the US Air Force, and he spent most of his military career of 20 years as a medical records technician in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he fell in love with the landscape and was drawn to paint.
While Alaska shaped his destiny in the end, Ross wasn’t really happy about the specifications of his job there, and he knew he was going to do something quite different with his life once he left the army, where he was also a drill Sergeant.
"The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn't going to be that way anymore," Ross told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990.
But before he achieved his dream of never having to yell at anybody, he got himself a reputation of a person of temper, which earned him the nickname “Bust ‘em up Bobby” among his Air Force peers.
During his initial years as a painter in Alaska, Ross was happy to paint for pleasure apart from earning a little extra money to complement his military salary, but when he saw German TV painter William Alexander on PBS, his ambition grew.
Alexander hosted “The Magic of Oil Painting” and “The Art of William Alexander,” on which he taught the wet-on-wet technique that Ross made so popular when he took the mantel from his mentor in the ‘80s.
Ross knew right away that he wanted to follow Alexander’s steps, and he contacted the German artists to study under him. While Alexander has initially happy to take Ross under his wing, he later resented him for “copying” him.
“ [Ross] betrayed me. I invented 'wet on wet.' I trained him and he is copying me -- what bothers me is not just that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do it better," a bitter Alexander told the New York Times in 1991.
While it is easy to understand Alexander’s animosity toward his most famous student, to be honest, the wet-on-wet technique, also known as “alla prima,” is as old as oil painting, which was invented at least in the 1400’s.
According to his most devoted disciple and business partner Annette Kowalski, the big afro hairdo that made Ross immediately recognizable came to be by the most unthinkable of reasons: out of a financial struggle.
It will be surprising for a lot of his fans, but actually, Ross wasn’t born with naturally curly hair. Being a practical and creative man in his own way, the painter came to an idea that was going to define his aesthetic forever, for better or worse.
"He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts. So he let his hair grow, he got a perm, and decided he would never need a haircut again," Kowalski told NPR in 2016.
Even if his fans love his unique look with ‘70s’ nostalgia vibes, Ross reached a point when he wanted to get rid of it and felt caught since the perm became his brand and company’s logo and changing it was going to hurt his business.
"He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that," Kowalski added.